Wednesday is once again upon us and I am thrilled to have another wordless book to share and an interview with its creator. This is a magical, brilliantly colorful, mysterious adventure about two kids, a hat seed, and a surprise bear visitor. Here is Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu, 2008.
The story opens with a little boy and a little girl climbing a hill, carrying a watering can and some signs. They plant the seeds; one group being under a watermelon sign, and the other smaller group under a hat sign. After all this hard work, the children fall asleep in a conveniently provided, comfortably large bed.
While they are sleeping, the hat seed crop has begun to grow. And by the time they awake, a gigantic plant has emerged with a hat on top and a debonair, white bear greets them. The bear has all sorts of tricks up his sleeves, …err hat, and the children are taken on a spectacular adventure including monkeys, canons, bubbles, sea creatures and more.
All the wonderful activities finally take their toll on the children, and the bear and monkeys bring them back to the garden and the bed to rest. The bear packs up the monkeys, and finally himself, into his hat and shoots off to adventure elsewhere.
Wonder Bear is every bit as wonder-inducing as the name implies, and then some. While the story itself is pretty fantastic, the art is the firework display of amazement to top it all off. The colors are stunning. The illustrations are created using water-based silkscreen which give the colors their intensity and richness. And Tao’s characters are just so adorable and playfully bulbous. Ha!
But what makes this wordless book so wonderful and work so well? Well, I hate to keep repeating myself on every wordless book we review, but I’ll consider it driving my point home that the concept here is once again simple if put into words, but jaw-dropping when translated in illustration. Although, if a really good storyteller were relaying this tale, the concept is quite the fodder for your imagination. And that is the beauty of what Tao ran with. She created a fantastic creature and then let him run loose with anything and everything he could pull out of his hat.
I really don’t think this book is all that mysterious in why it works for a wordless book. It is unapologetically wondrous and enthralling. The whole concept is to blow the character children’s minds and the readers’ minds. So, I’m going to do my best to stop adding words to a brilliant wordless book and instead turn the focus to its brilliant creator. Tao happily joined me in a short email Q&A to discuss some of the thought behind Wonder Bear, and also give her take on wordless books and how to approach them. Let’s jump into it.
Question: In your interview with the Steads on Number Five Bus, you share a small bit about the process behind creating Wonder Bear. I find it fantastic and amazing that your first book was a wordless book (same for Mercer Mayer actually)! What motivated you to create a wordless picture book as opposed to a traditional text + illustration book?
Q: In your interview with Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, you describe how your stories come “inside-out,” that “The words, if there are any, come last.” Was there ever narration in your head for Wonder Bear that you eventually left out or did it always remain wordless?
TN: I initially had a backstory about where the hat seed had come from, but (with the help of my advisor, Peter McCarty) it was edited out. This story is really about the adventure the kids go on. How, where, and why they get the seed really doesn’t matter.
Editing down is one of the fun challenges of making a picture book. You create a whole universe, but then you have to pick and choose the elements that make up the heart of the story. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle, but you don’t need all the pieces.
Q: Is there a specific storyline to Wonder Bear that you hope the reader gets or is it a bit open-ended in your opinion?
TN: I just hope the reader enjoys the ride as they flip through the pages. I find it so interesting that people can have all different interpretations of the story. Because I created it, I only see it one way and it seems pretty obvious to me! But I love that everyone can make it their own story.
Q: Was it a more challenging experience to create a wordless book than your text books or is every book different, period?
Q: Is there a soundtrack that you hear for Wonder Bear?
TN: No. That’s an interesting question. It never occurred to me that someone might!
Q: Do you consider wordless picture books a better solitary experience or more exciting as a read-aloud?
Q: Have you ever shared Wonder Bear in a storytime? Do you have tips for how it or any other wordless picture books should be read aloud?
TN: I have shared Wonder Bear with preschool kids. I’ve learned that kids really love to hear a story, any time, anywhere. Whether there are words or not is not an issue as long as someone wants to share a story with them. I love the eagerness they have to sit down with a book.
Q: Do you have any favorite picture books, wordless or not, besides yours of course?
TN: So many favorites! Here are just a few I can think of right now: The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud, Arthur Geisert books, The Sea by Marianne Dubuc, The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez, The Red Book by Barbara Lehman, Wave by Suzy Lee, The Farmer and The Clown by Marla Frazee, Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner.
Q: And lastly, do you have any books that you consider to pair well with Wonder Bear, wordless or not?
TN: Hm…, I haven’t thought about that before. How about Mary Poppins?
Thanks so much to Tao Nyeu for blowing our minds with these colors and adventure, and for graciously giving her time to some questions. I love the idea of the charming Wonder Bear meeting the practically perfect Mary Poppins!
Also, as a bonus treat, I ran across this video of Tao reading Wonder Bear at a storytime. What better experience than seeing the creator herself read her own book! Happy adventuring!